Jack Spicer, from his 1957 collection, After Lorca:
…Things do not connect; they correspond…. Even these letters. They correspond with something (I don’t know what) that you have written (perhaps as unapparently as that lemon corresponds to this piece of seaweed) and, in turn, some future poet will write something which corresponds to them. That is how we dead men write each other.
The irony here is this: in 1957 Spicer wasn’t dead and Lorca was. Now Spicer’s dead, and I’m not. So, either Spicer was psychic or this is the way things really do work: a ladder of correspondence.
A creative profession, perhaps more than any other profession, is one built, culled and cultivated from groundwork that has already been set, hence innovation via (some kind of) inspiration. I know no writer who isn’t a living, breathing representation of the influences they have encountered. The future gains new ideas and models of creativity this way; we’re constantly marching up a long ladder of either intrigue with, or rejection of something outside ourselves. These things which one chooses to correspond to, or move away from, construct the notion of a “history,” a history that inevitably makes a creative career larger than simply one’s personal contributions. Sounds important, right?
In many ways the story of Ezra Pound editing T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land makes the poem itself much more intriguing. In the annotated edition of The Waste Land we see the working relationship Pound and Eliot had refined. Indeed they were pals, but the friendship formalities go by the wayside when Pound stepped in as “editor,” leaving brash, “Bad- but [I] can’t attack until I get typescript” commentary all over Eliot’s written script, and cutting major sections and lines of the poem with the justification, “Too personal.” Some of Pound’s comments are extremely funny, especially when one imagines what Eliot– “The Old Possum,” as Pound called him– must have been thinking while looking them over. However, Eliot took many of Pound’s edits into consideration because he trusted his advice. And later in the annotated edition we see Pound return as Eliot’s ally by championing The Waste Land to other colleagues. This is a 1922 letter from Pound to John Quinn:
“Eliot came back from his Lausanne specialist looking OK; and with a damn good poem (19 pages) in his suitcase…. About enough, Eliot’s poem, to make the rest of us shut up shop.”
The rest is history. And that’s my point.
So, I’ve decided to infiltrate the Best American Poetry blog with contemporary examples of “working relationships.” Each day I will feature two writers in a conversation that highlights the aspects of their lives and careers that have been enhanced by writing together, learning from one another, or publishing with each other.
The most beautiful findings in each of the interviews are the descriptions of the lifelong friendships that have been created between these artists.
James Belflower mentions he wishes he could bridge the gap between New York and Arizona just to sit down for coffee with mentor, Cynthia Hogue.
Elizabeth Robinson looks forward to hearing about the new communities Travis Cebula encounters during his travels.
Rusty Morrison says she fully trusted Gillian Hamel to see Omnidawn’s online magazine OmniVerse come to fruition.
Standard Schaefer and Paul Vangelisti constantly alert each other to work that might pique each other’s interests.
And when asked about the best advice Frankie Rollins has imparted, Selah Saterstrom answers: “To risk everything for my biggest life and best work.”
To risk everything.
You picking up what I’m putting down?
Enjoy these conversations as they come down the pipeline. I have also asked the featured writers to collaborate on a new creative piece between the two of them. This is intended to honor each other’s talents and abilities, but most importantly, to put a new spin on their “relationship,” one that we, as audience (as the future), can correspond to and with.
I’m kicking off the week with an interview between James Belflower and Cynthia Hogue. James’ second full-length collection of poetry, A Posture of Contour, was just released from Spring Gun Press, and it is a beauty. He’s pursuing his PhD at Suny Albany, and he curates the Yes! reading series. Cynthia is the Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry in the English Department at ASU. She has published seven collections of poetry, most recently, Or Consequence and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, interview-poems and photographs (with Rebecca Ross).
I’ll let them tell the rest of their story.
Sarah Suzor: How did you meet? And how long have you known each other?
James Belflower: We met at Arizona State University during the first year of my MFA, about a decade ago now, in her class titled “Poetics of Witness.” She hadn’t taught it before and I remember not saying much, but being deeply affected by her reading of Carolyn Forché’s The Angel Of History. I transferred to C.U. Boulder after my first year because Jessica started her graduate work there. Cynthia and I have stayed in touch. She visits her family in the Albany area every year or so, and when she does, we’ve been able to squeeze in the most amazing lunches.
Cynthia Hogue: It was a decade ago. James stayed in touch off and on, always sent me his work—sometimes as a manuscript. I was on his MA thesis as an outside reader. Then he published his incredible first book, Commuter.
SS: In what way would your career be most drastically different if you two hadn’t met?
JB: Honestly, I’m not entirely sure I would have continued to pursue writing. When we met I was acutely insecure in my decision to pursue poetry academically, and ignorant of what it involved. Fortunately, I met Cynthia during the height of my insecurities. Her incredible patience with my extreme reticence and her generous responses to my often angst-ridden questions was crucial in showing me that poetry was a way to articulate my misgivings about my narrow worldview and helped me grow beyond it.
CH: James took a poetics of witness course from me, the first I ever taught, and was such a thoughtful, such a deep thinker in his poetry about aesthetics and the poetics, that in keeping up the conversation with me intermittently over the years, he has inspired me. It is an intense subject to teach, and the class is very moving, so it takes time to recover. I thought, I won’t do this again. Once is enough! It’s too hard. But then there was a student like James who emerged, developing such amazing work over the years—both in his poetry and teaching—and I found myself thinking, Well, I probably should try this again.
For personal reasons, James left the program after that class, but he kept digging on his own, going in his own inventive direction, which he shared with me from time to time. He engaged in completely original ways with the concept of “witness,” and he opened my eyes to possibilities of formal experiment and investigation that I would never have encountered. My own work, which is very different, would have been diminished without the ongoing brilliance of dialoging with James. He’s unique.
SS: James, how long were you in Cynthia’s class before you knew you were going to really appreciate the subject matter?
JB: I knew right away. The courses I had taken up to that point focused heavily on more mainstream poetics; however, her course explored various ways more innovative poetry could ethically address suffering and trauma. Her ability to teach such emotionally charged and precarious topics, revealed poetry in a light entirely new to me. It showed me the stakes of writing. During that class, she analyzed Walter Benjamin’s influence on Carolyn Forché’s work—this was the first time I understood how much philosophy and poetry contributed to each other. The creative final project she assigned for that course ended up being my first book years later. I owe much of my thinking about the relationship of poetry and trauma to Cynthia’s insightful readings of Alicia Ostriker, Carlolyn Forché, and Joy Harjo.
SS: Cynthia, how can you tell that a student has taken a particular interest in what you’re teaching?
CH: Often, the most talkative student in class is not the most engaged, but it’s rare to have the quietest student in a very lively class turning out to be the most profoundly engaged over time. James was best friends with the most talkative student in class—they were both philosophically-minded, and they were a great pair of extremes who balanced each other. I called them “The Philosophers,” affectionately and respectfully, of course. I had thought that the other student was more deeply involved in the ideas of the course, the poetics, but that was hardly the case! It was James, who was already beginning to break new poetic ground. Students who are that fully engaged register the concentration in their faces, in their eyes, and also in their body language. James registered his interest like an athlete, with concentration, focus and drive. Also with discipline.
SS: James, what was one aspect of working with Cynthia that changed you?
JB: Only one? Looking back on it, it was Cynthia’s patience with me during this difficult period that opened poetry up as a way to rethink much of my rather fundamentalist upbringing. Prior to her example, I constantly doubted the validity of being a poet. I remember Cynthia speaking about the strong Judaic influence on Alicia Ostriker’s Volcano Sequence and how Alicia poetically struggles with the paternalistic traditions of that faith. Cynthia also encouraged the risks I was taking in my own work. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what all she instilled, and this notion of risk, and the stakes it proposes for the poem. It is something I hope to convey to my students, and I realize now it requires giving them the confidence she so expertly cultivated in me. Being her student and friend means she nourishes this confidence in the potential of poetry to communicate. Over the years, her example has shown me the value of this kindness toward students who might lack confidence, but are eager to experiment in their work.
SS: Cynthia, what is your reaction to James’ success as a poet?
CH: Joy. Applause. Enduring interest! Excitement. I love seeing him take off.
SS: James, what was the most influential piece of poetry/prose Cynthia introduced you to?
JB: Probably Alicia Ostriker’s The Volcano Sequence and Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History. Cynthia analyzed the metaphor of “red thread,” which loops together much of Volcano Sequence, from so many different directions I think of it every time a “thread” appears in a book! I remember her describing the thread as an umbilical chord, an image of the generative quality within faith that holds together its historically sexually repressive narratives. Her emphasis on the viscerality of the texts she chose is one of the reasons they’ve stuck with me. Though it was only recommended reading I also return to Martin Buber’s I and Thou. All three of these are texts I grew to love as much as I find them problematic.
SS: James, what’s your favorite line or stanza of Cynthia’s work?
JB: I think it’s more of a project than a specific line. Her book When The Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina is an intricate mixture of photographs and poems culled from interviews with victims in all walks of life. I taught it a couple of years ago and the students gravitated to the carefully arranged text/image combinations. Carefully editing 100’s of survivor interviews, the text smartly avoids sensationalizing the material and instead emphasizes local and personal aspects of a tragedy terribly misrepresented. It provided an excellent way for students to develop an ethical awareness of survivor experience. This book demonstrates Cynthia’s talents for interviewing with care, editing ethically, and negotiating the complexities of eye-witness testimony. One of my favorite lines is from a blues musician named Kid Merv, whose first child was born on Saturday before Katrina hit. Cynthia handles the stark contrast of the speaker’s joy in the face of impending destruction, by emphasizing the speaker’s directness, “Saturday before the hurricane/ my girlfriend went into labor./ Everybody’s leaving town/ and we’re going uptown to Touro./ My son was born/ at 2:13 a.m. Sunday morning/ And I was, Wow!/ When he came out of the womb,/ I went through years of music—/ ‘Sunshine of My Life,’ James Brown,/ Bob Marley, some jazz,/ ‘It’s a Wonderful World,’ some/ Brass Band, Curtis Mayfield—/ the first songs he heard./ Monday morning, the hurricane…”.
SS: Cynthia, what stands out about James’ writing to you?
CH: That he brings languages from very different domains—architecture and trauma, for example—together in the work in completely fresh ways. That his training in music composition gives his work the emotive pull into linguistic invention.
I will share with you that I read Commuter in one reading because I could not put it down. I was blown away with what he had created, made. I came to a page in the collection with many names on it, and— my god, all those years ago—they were the names of the class members in our class, there in his book! He was memorializing our very intense, collective experience of investigation, discovery, courage together. Of course, that is encoded in the context, and otherwise, the names function like mantras, breaks in the piece.
As I mentioned, James took that class and left Arizona State University, the university where we studied together, but he took so much with him and expanded it out tenfold. There’s a kind of ticker tape aspect at the bottom of many of the pages of Commuter that struck me—both as heart-breaking and unlocatable, shocking in that sense of unlocatability, the small fragments of narrative. Then the visual aspects of the book were fascinating for me, to see where the poem would take us through typographic as well as orthographic elements.
SS: Cynthia, what is your favorite piece of advice to share with your students about starting a career in this field?
CH: Oh, so much good advice to choose from! Ok, seriously, I do give a lot of practical advice, and that’s necessary and hopefully useful, but not my favorite, and I actually don’t recall giving practical advice to James (beyond: apply to Albany, go to Albany). My favorite would be: if in doubt, choose the work (the poem). Keep your own counsel and follow the work (the writing of poetry).
In fact, being asked this question is timely for me right now, as I am in the midst of making a big decision about moving from teaching to administrative work, and remembering my “favorite advice” to students actually is good counsel for myself (also keeping your own counsel, oddly enough). How strange. But I never had to give that counsel to James, as I said. He always did all that naturally.
SS: James, how many hours a week do you spend writing?
JB: I’m glad you didn’t specify what kind of writing! I’ll go ahead and add dissertation hours in there and say 20-25!
SS: Cynthia, how many hours a week do you think James spends writing?
CH: I imagine that he works every day, so maybe 20 hours, more if he’s not in school. He always worked hard. Because he does work hard, and takes his teaching as seriously, perhaps it is somewhat less during the semester, more during breaks. I mean, when one is full on teaching, one works hard—often 10-12 hours a day, but not necessarily on one’s own writing, right?
SS: James, if you had to guess, what is Cynthia’s favorite muse?
JB: I would guess Julia Kristeva. I see an ongoing conversation in her poetry, scholarship, and translation (see her new translation of poetic correspondence between Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy titled Fortino Sámano for an excellent example) with the conflictive notion of the “time of abjection.” As Kristeva suggests, this is a very fraught temporality but it also carries the potential to become a time “of veiled infinity, and the moment when revelation bursts forth.” I read much of Cynthia’s work as a necessary return to this highly ambivalent moment in an attempt to recover its oppositional energy for the purpose of drawing attention to, and in a very complicated sense, working through traumatic injustice.
SS: Cynthia, if you had to pick one, what is your favorite muse?
CH: I lived, when I first moved to New Orleans about twenty years ago, on Independence Street, which was very near or crossed Euterpe Street, as I recall. All the muses had streets in New Orleans. So to ask me this is to cast me back to that time, a beautiful and difficult time in my life, when my interest in a poetics of witness was born, as it happens.
SS: Why do you feel it’s important to cultivate these “working relationships?”
JB: I think working relationships provide models not only for writing, but for individuation. Personally, I find writing very difficult, and the thought of identifying as a “poet” makes me apprehensive. In addition to reservations about my own practice, we live in a culture where the value of writing is often obscured. Perhaps more accurately, the product is evaluated very differently than the practice that forms and informs it. It was a rare blessing to overlap with Cynthia at A.S.U. and have a brief time to begin a relationship with someone who persists in reinvesting artistic value into the process of its practice. Our working relationship has shown me not only the pleasure in the product, but a love of the practice: a passion. I draw an immense strength from this. I stress the importance of a sustained practice because a large part of what I admire about Cynthia is her constant development and numerous contributions to her fields. Through this she expresses such an authentic love for what language roving between people cultivates.
CH: They’re inspiring, nourishing. I’ve learned things from James as he has advanced through his Ph.D., but also earlier, when he was making his way in Colorado. He has nudged me toward experiment, gotten me outside my comfort zone, and his genuine warmth has really touched me. It has been an inspiring older poet-younger poet working relationship, however intermittently, because it has abided. When James left Arizona, I really didn’t expect to hear from him ever again, and certainly would never have predicted all that has unfolded over time.
SS: If you could alter one thing about the course of your working relationship with each other, what would it be?
CH: Selfishly, that he never would have had to leave Arizona. That he could have stayed and completed his training, gotten what he needed, there where we began to work together. That is what I would change. I would have had a chance to work with him closely for a longer time. That is such a gift—for the mentor, you know, to see the growth of the young poet happening over a few years up close and personal, as it were. But his wife was taking an M.A. in Music Performance in Colorado, so he decided that it was his turn to follow her (and in turn, she followed him to Albany). And that tells you a lot about the kind of person he is and what a great marriage they have! And in the end, I think it has worked out for James to be in Colorado and Albany. He has become the experimental, investigative, radically inventive poet he was meant to be.
JB: The last time Cynthia came to Albany she introduced me to Mrs. London’s, the only bakery in the area where you can buy authentic baguettes. If I could change one thing it would be having the time for a weekly talk with her at Mrs. London’s over coffee, baguettes, and poetry. I’ll buy!
(Street tucked with dim wavery light, go
past the falling-down, unpainted doors, fog of orange trees.)
houses of the undead
Have we urged a faction that will invade elsewhere?
I ask, in a way slinging the terms.
The fingers of auditors curve like squawks in air,
something turns warm from a prehensile sun on my ears.
Is there an antiseptic within life? The word’s so vapid yet somehow not muffled,
far from aphid.
The landscape swarms without it actually being
so, a word during forgotten, likewise abounding with stitch
in the spare terrain I, too, once hovered, go
forth and back, an I without,
like afterfeathers, both the cultivated and wild, aboard adjoining
medicinal plants and rare birds that in lowlands quietly develop impunity.
Orchid. Or quit. Oh guilt. Off kilter. Awkwarder. Award. Oar
with which I ask? Let’s not pretend that we do not hear skin
wound up with quick quill tug, pluck!
James Belfower & Cynthia Hogue
Here's a link to James' book, A Posture of Conture:
And here's a link to Cynthia's books from Red Hen Press: